The purpose of this project is to provide a collection of transcriptions from the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. This project seeks to give a platform to all parts of the vocal performing arts to better understand the lived experiences and mentality of those professionals. In collecting stories from the COVID-19 pandemic Jeffrey Larson, President of L2 Artists discussed the pandemic and its effect on both his agency and the vocal performing arts. The advice that Mr. Larson gives to young artists about defining their success is especially timely in this time of turmoil.
Jeffrey Larson, President L2 Artists
Interviewed April 27, 2020
TB: So on a positive note, what’s the best thing that’s happened to you in the last week?
JL: We are a huge baseball family. I played into high school and wanted to play in college. If I had chosen to go to a smaller university I think that might have been possible. [Most of] My wife’s family are major baseball fans and our seven-year-old son has gotten the baseball bug as well. He loves baseball and has since he was two years-old. This year, for the first time, he tried out for the local travel baseball team in our town and made it. I think we had three practices before everything started getting shut down and cancelled. But on Saturday, our head coach delivered his jersey and hat anyways, even though we are not playing. So he got his first jersey and hat. His name is on it, his own number, and he was very, very excited. That was a really nice moment during the weekend.
TB: Really sweet. So for those who are not familiar with your career, would you mind giving a little bit of your background and where you are in your career right now?
JL: Music has always been a part of my life and specifically singing. Until I graduated from college—and I think I can even say into the beginning of my professional career—I was always (except for my sixth grade year) either singing as a soloist, in a choir, or doing something that had to do with singing. I tried to quit singing in high school to play baseball and was told that that was a terrible idea by some of the members of the high school choir. So I stuck with it and took some extra classes in order to make everything work.
As I went through high school I realized music came very naturally to me. So that’s what I decided to do when I went to college. I got degrees in vocal performance as an undergrad and a master’s student. My voice teacher at the University of Kentucky was Dr. Stephen King, who’s now at Rice University and well-known for teaching at the Houston Grand Opera Studio, Los Angeles Opera, Aspen, and Ravinia. My last semester at UK was when he moved to Houston, and being from Texas, I decided to follow him.
So I was living in Houston, teaching, and starting to perform. Some of my close friends were beginning to have success early on in their careers, and as I began to see what that really means, I realized I was not cut from the right cloth to be a professional opera singer. So I applied to New York University’s master’s program in Performing Arts Administration. I thought I wanted to be a general director of an opera company one day. Then I learned about fundraising and decided I did not want to be the general director of an opera company.
My girlfriend at the time (now my wife) always pushed me towards the idea of being a manager. Simply put, how I interacted with my voice students was more like a manager or an agent than a voice teacher. And those kinds of conversations were what always interested me. After one year of grad school, I ran into a friend while visiting the Santa Fe Opera. She had just learned that someone was leaving her manager’s office and she put us in touch. [From that,] I wound up in the vocal division at Columbia Artists and worked at CAMI [Columbia Artists Management, Inc.] for about seven years; five years in the vocal division and two years in executive administration.
Post-financial crisis, budgets were shrinking. Opera companies were closing and fees were going down. However, I was given the opportunity to move into a role where I was working directly with the ownership of the company. [I was] doing everything from running the contract administration of the entire company, updating the website, and working on the database. I’m really grateful for that opportunity because it taught me how to properly run a business.
But I missed the opera world. I missed friends and colleagues. And so I had the opportunity to meet and go to work for people at OPERA America, which was a wonderful step back into the opera world and to reconnect with everyone. After a couple of years, I again began to think what’s next? My wife said, “You are a manager. You need to go back into management.” So we agreed we would take the plunge and start our own company.
So in 2016, we hung out a shingle. And here we are, a little over four years later, with an international roster of 40 clients. We had a staff of four, but we’re down a couple people at the moment because of the current pandemic situation. We have representatives in Europe and partnerships around the world. It’s a lot of fun.
TB: You’ve already bridge into the pandemic that we are dealing with. So can you go back and describe where you were and how you first realized that your life was going to be directly affected by this?
JL: The first real example was in February. One of our clients is a Chinese citizen, who makes his home in the United States, and we had issues getting his new visa processed. I cannot provide any direct evidence, but I believe that some of the fact that this worldwide pandemic started in China and he was a Chinese citizen, did cause some problems in the process. It was at that moment that I began to think, “What do I do if this gets worse?” So I started to think and process, trying to look a few steps ahead.
Then the second time it really hit home, I was in California for work. I was flying home from San Francisco to New York. One of my pet peeves about travel is people who line up at the gate early in the process. [So this flight] Was one of the last flights before the overnight red-eye started. So that’s usually a very, very full flight on a Sunday night for people coming to New York for meetings. And they announced boarding and I looked up and there were only three people in line. That was another moment of, “This could get weird.” Basically that flight from New York to San Francisco was only about 35% full, which is very unusual. It was only 72 hours later that President Trump announced that they were going to start cancelling flights from Europe to the United States. So that was when it started to have a day-to-day impact on our business. Actually that night was the last night I was in New York City. I haven’t been back to our offices in New York, and now we’re going into seven weeks.
TB: So from that flight the world began to shift. So what were some of the initial things that affected your business? Were there any cancellations that pop into your mind?
JL: The first thing is what I mentioned before, which was the announcement that major travel restrictions were going to be put in place. So I immediately printed out a list of our roster and I checked in my head, “Do I know where they are?” We had two clients working in London. One was scheduled to start a contract the following week at the Metropolitan Opera and so I was very concerned about getting that person back to the United States. The other person in London was performing at ENO [English National Opera] and was supposed to fly to another city in the US to begin another contract. Those were the kinds of things I was focused on: how do we get people moved around? I was less worried about our clients who live in Germany, simply because that’s where their homes are. We did have one client in Frankfurt whom I wondered about if they had to get home, how quickly can they do it?
In terms of other cancellations and the effect on our business, just like about every North American vocal manager would say that the Metropolitan Opera is going to be their biggest client on our side of the business. So when the Met announced that they were closing for two weeks initially, and then later on we found out that they were cancelling the entire season... That was one of the largest financial impacts on us. Because we had a lot of people on contract for the spring. That’s the big one that stands out.
TB: So the cancellations began and at some point, as I’m hearing you talk, it became less about getting people to their next job and more about getting them home. Is that correct?
JL: Yeah and for the most part that all happened rather easily. The client who was in Frankfurt had a long path home once the production in Germany was officially cancelled. But for the most part everyone was able to get home fairly easily and incredibly quickly.
TB: So to put this in perspective, in a pre-COVID world what percentage of your roster was working?
JL: I would say in terms of the week before it happen, 85-90% of people were on gigs or headed to gigs. Then the next step of how many people have lost income? Everybody, every single person.
TB: So what does that percentage look like today?
JL: Every single opera singer on the planet is currently unemployed. With the exception that opera singers in Germany are paid. Those on ensemble contracts are still getting paid because they are employees of the state. But every freelance artist is currently unemployed.
TB: So what kind of financial impact does that have on your business?
JL: The financial impact is great. Many opera companies and symphony orchestras in the United States are very fortunate to be in good financial health, so that they could pay out the contracts, even if it was 20%. Some paid as much as 50% and a few were able to pay the full value of contracts that were cancelled. We are continuing to see this as we move into the summer. So that is helpful.
But in terms of running the business, the other thing that we’re very reliant on at the moment is going through the process of applying for assistance from various government entities. We’ve already been fortunate to receive a grant from the City of New York. We have received some money from the federal government and we’re continuing to explore all of those avenues. My goal as a business owner is to try and keep my team together as much as possible, so that when our artists get back in the rehearsal room and get back on stage, we are ready to go and there’s no lag there.
TB: So what would you say is the hardest lesson that you’ve learned so far in this situation?
JL: Good question... There are two things that come to mind and I’ll just share both of them. One is as you run a business—frankly, I think this can apply to singers or anyone in their life as you are making financial plans—always be as conservative as you can. We tend to run our business that way, but you can probably always be more conservative, save even more money and put even more aside. Again, we’re fortunate that we’re able to keep going for the moment but we don’t know how long this is going to go on. We don’t know how long we will be able to continue.
The other lesson is that when you’re a small business, your entire life is about relationships. When you’re in a difficult situation, your ability to lean on those relationships is going to help you out. The way that this has manifested itself is with the federal lending programs. Our accounts are held by a major US bank and through these federal programs, the major US banks have had real problems helping true small businesses. So if I was to say what I have learned, which I would then turn into advice, it would be this: if you are starting a small business, find a bank—a local bank—that is small, regional, and that you can have a personal relationship with someone that you know. So that you can pick up the phone and call at any time. Because if you work with a major institution, you are not going to have the same amount of access.
TB: I think that’s great advice. So give me a snapshot of what your life was like eight weeks ago and what you would be looking forward to doing now, minus a pandemic.
JL: Well, eight weeks ago, I had just returned from a family ski trip, which was really lovely. Getting to watch my kids continue to get better at skiing has been a lot of fun. Since then what has happened is I’ve had four business trips cancelled. One of my artists, the one who was rehearsing in Frankfurt, would have made a title role international debut. That did not happen. I would have been there for that. I would have been to performances in Dallas, Frankfurt, and I would have been in Houston to see Magic Flute and Salome with a couple of clients. So I missed that. Then in the next couple of weeks, I would have missed another client’s European debut and a new production in Switzerland.
So the snapshot is: I’ve gone from commuting to the city, being in our office, seeing my team, traveling to see our clients, and taking meetings to now that’s all done from my home. We have a professional Zoom account, which we didn’t have eight weeks ago. I’m proud to say our home internet is surviving remote learning for our children. My wife is on video conferences all the time for her company. I’m on Zoom all the time. So I think it’s just a very different lifestyle at the moment than what we had. It’s much more sedentary because we can’t leave. We can’t go anywhere.
TB: How do you find that this is affecting your client’s creative process?
JL: I’m going to go a little bit macro-level and drill down. In the current world we live in—I think this goes even to pre-COVID-19—you have artists who are very comfortable creating content. Whether it’s YouTube, Instagram, or Facebook, there are those who use that as an outlet for their creativity in line with their singing career. And then you have those that aren’t. It’s not necessarily generational. I think it is a personality difference. So for those that are now at home and not used to doing that, I think some of them are a little more frustrated. Because they don’t have the outlets that they’re used to. Whereas those who have always been comfortable on social media and creating their own content are just putting all of their energy into that pipeline, as opposed to it being something that they split. Neither path is more correct than the other. I think it just has to do with the personality of the individual and how they are used to expressing themselves. And in some ways, how comfortable they are expressing themselves in what is a much more personal medium than the opera stage or the concert hall.
TB: How do you think that this is going to change our musical landscape in the future?
JL: In my opinion, the performing arts world—specifically, what we think of as western classical music—tends to evolve slowly compared to other entertainment industries. Even if we compare ourselves to not just commercial music, but to commercial theater, Broadway. Also, looking at the sports world—granted they have a different financial pool to dip into—those worlds have evolved much faster than western classical music.
I think we have been forced to evolve very quickly in order to not be forgotten. It’s very easy to always say, classical music’s in danger. I’ve now been in the business side of this industry for almost 15 years, and they’ve been talking about it [classical music being in danger] for 100 years. I’m not worried about western classical music becoming irrelevant. But I do think we are being forced to evolve at a pace with which we’re not usually comfortable. And that has to do with going online, creating digital content, and creating it quickly. If we think about the macro-level creative process that we see today—from the genesis of an idea of an opera until you actually see it on stage—if it’s done in a year, that is lightning-fast in today’s era. But you look back to Rossini, who supposedly composed Barber of Seville in six weeks or something crazy [Author’s note, there is some debate about the length of time that Rossini spent on this composition, but it is notably short]. We had overtures being written the night before performances. That would never happen in today’s market.
I have often said that I think we should live at that speed. It would help us be more relevant as opposed to taking three years to produce an opera on a subject that may not be relevant in three years. Whereas the theater world gets stuff up on its feet in a year to 18 months, sometimes faster. And I think we are being forced to do that because all of a sudden, we have to have something to put up. If you don’t have the Metropolitan Opera archive of video performances to stream everyday, you’re having to create things and come up with things.
So we had the world’s first Zoom opera that just happened this past weekend, written by Kamala Sankaram. And you have other people creating videos daily or the Met Opera Gala, that just happened this past weekend. It was an example of, “We’re trying to figure out how to do this and we’re doing it pretty quickly.” We’ve never been forced to learn how to create something new this fast. So I hope that we embrace that speed in the future. That’s one change I would like to see happen and I think it will become necessary.
I think it will be interesting to see how the idea of an international artist evolves. Since we are in an election cycle, I’ll say I think it’s too early to tell whether it’s going to happen or not. But do companies start hiring local people? Because they’re forced to in the beginning and then that may change the way artists get hired in the future. I think the other thing that happens is anytime you have a major crisis—whether it was the Great Recession of 2008 or frankly going back to [9/11]—if we think about how things take major steps forward, the terrorist attacks changed the way we go in and out of airports and 2008 revealed a lot of problems in the financial industries. Then and now, I think with all of us having to shut down at the same time, a lot of our infrastructure that has worked for so long has been laid bare. And you recognize what works and what doesn’t work. So it gives us a unique opportunity to take a look at that infrastructure and say, “What do we need to be prepared for this next time? What does that mean?” So that’s why I say it’s too early to tell, because we are still figuring that out. We’re still learning.
TB: So we had a conversation recently on young artists. So how do you think that this is going to affect them and what would be your advice to them?
JL: The advice I always like to give young singers is to always define success for themselves. Once you have created your own definition of success, you can then chart your path. If you want to have a career, make a nice living by singing, there are many ways to do that. [But] If you have to be singing leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera, that is a very different path. And I would encourage young singers to not let the current crisis discourage them for what their definition of success is. Because opera is still going to be here. Music is still going to be here. There is going to be another side of this. There is always opportunity for those who are talented and for those who are driven to succeed, and then back to what I said before which is, what is the definition of succeeding for you? Once you are able to define what success looks like for you, your drive can take you there.
I know there are concerns about competitions and age limits and how to get exposed. I personally believe, if you want to do it, if you want to have a career as a singer, you’re going to find a way. Even if there are different kinds of hurdles than there used to be. I also think we have to be realistic when we look at the landscape of the industry and understand how we fit into it. I say that for myself just as much. Will running an agency be sustainable in five years? I don’t know the answer to that. I believe it will, but none of us truly knows the answer to that question.
I think the other advice I would have for young singers is to find ways to keep your creativity going. It doesn’t have to be on Facebook. It doesn’t have to be on Instagram. It doesn’t have to be on TikTok, or any platform where you feel like, “I have to do this because it’s what so and so is doing.” There are millions of ways to be creative and to feed that part of your soul. So find the one that speaks to your truth. Don’t feel like you have to do something just because you see everyone else doing it.
TB: So what would your advice be to the musical community-at-large?
JL: Going back to what I said about having to evolve quickly, I would hate for our community to work really hard to try and recreate what we had two months ago. Because that’s not going to be possible. Just the same way we can’t create what was going on in the 90s or the 80s. I don’t want us to try and recreate the past. I want us to evolve into something new and better. I think it is human nature to try and push a reset button and recreate what you had before. The past is in the past. Take the information, take the situation we have now in the present, and create something new and better going forward.
Because I know it’s going to happen, I’ve been telling everybody to get out their Beethoven 9th scores. That’s what every symphony orchestra is going to want to do to celebrate coming back. But wouldn’t it be great if 10 major symphony orchestras had 10 major pieces written to signal the end of the pandemic? Then there is musical history associated with this moment.
TB: So is there anything else that you would like to add to our conversation tonight?
JL: [Lets out a long sigh and then laughs] We are very fortunate to have a world-wide community that has a shared purpose and has a shared vision, which is to share beauty. There are so many different ways to share beauty with the world. It’s very easy to feel like you have to do it in a certain way, your voice or an instrument etc. It’s very easy to try and force yourself to share beauty with the world in that way because it’s part of you. Maybe it is what people expect of you. But there are lots of different ways to share beauty with the world. And I would encourage people to not be afraid to explore the various ways in which they can accomplish that.
TB: So what is your video binge recommendation for the pandemic?
JL: Is it sad to say I have already had a couple? We’re almost a third of the way through Tiger King. I did all 21 Marvel movies in story order. I’m also binging Gotham on Netflix. But [overall] it would have to be Frasier.
TB: Thank you so much for your time and chatting with me today.
About Jeffrey Larson
Jeffrey Larson has dedicated himself to the development and management of world-class artists for over a decade.
After seven years at Columbia Artists Management, followed by Artistic Services Manager at OPERA America, he has built and managed successful partnerships with a distinguished list of artists and performing arts organizations alike.
He served as an adjudicator for the Oratorio Society of New York’s Solo Competition, as well as presented master classes at Rice University and Westminster Choir College. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Texas Tech University and a Master’s Degree from University of Kentucky, both in Vocal Performance, and a Master’s Degree in Performing Arts Administration from New York University.